Death Rides a Horse (1967)

The middle film in Sergio Leone’s famous Dollars trilogy, 1965’s For a Few Dollars More, is considered one of the best spaghetti westerns ever made and is also my personal favorite of the genre. Two years later, 1967’s Death Rides a Horse hit theaters, and hhmm, something sure seems familiar. Borrowing liberally from Leone’s earlier western, it uses the same basic storyline with some almost identical scenes. Thankfully it does enough to stand on its own.

At an isolated ranch where $100,000 is being guarded one rainy night, a gang of bandits and killers descend on the ranch, taking the money as they kill the guards and family. All except one that is…a young boy. Some 15 years later, the boy has grown up, and Bill (John Phillip Law), is looking for the men responsible for his family’s murder. A dead-shot with pistol or rifle, Bill is still inexperienced, but he has specific memories that will help him identify the killers without having seen their faces. As he travels though, he meets up with Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), an older gunman fresh out of prison. Their plans seem the same as both men are gunning for the same bandits. Will they work together or as foes?

Sounds like For a Few Dollars More, doesn’t it? The young gunslinger teaming with the older, more experienced gun-hand isn’t unique to just FAFDM, but it is an example of a movie that handles it really well. But in the wave of movies that were released after the Leone westerns, some similar stories popped up, and director Giulio Petroni uses that story as a jumping off point. Similar elements are there — the dynamic between characters, the blood-tinted flashbacks — but this is a movie that stands on its own. There’s a reason it is remembered as one of the best spaghetti westerns around. And wouldn’t you know it? This Lee Van Cleef guy is a big reason why.

By 1967, Van Cleef was a star thanks to the spaghetti western. He’d already starred in FAFDM, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and The Big Gundown, and with ‘Death’ adds another classic to his name. His Ryan is a slightly different version of Col. Mortimer, albeit a little more down on his luck. Even when his characters are in the right though, Van Cleef gave them a mean streak right up their back. He’s an anti-hero, but one you’re never sure of his intentions. Cool as gunfire starts, he knows what he wants and plans on getting it. Playing Colonel Mortimer for Leone is probably his most iconic role, but this is one of my favorites of his. Unfortunately John Phillip Law just can’t match Clint Eastwood’s part, but he does a respectable job as the revenge-seeking Bill. It’s hard to tell if it’s his acting or a bad dubbing, but wooden aptly describes the character. There is a chemistry with Van Cleef’s Ryan though and that goes a long way in saving the story.

So who should our revenge-seeking gunmen go after? ‘Death’ fills out a cast will plenty of recognizable faces, all just waiting to be picked off. Law’s Bill as a child saw little things he could remember about the killers; a tattoo, an earring, a scar, and now he’s looking for those clues. The killers include Luigi Pistilli as Walcott, now a respectable banker (saw him clearly), American actor Anthony Dawson as Cavanaugh (chest tattoo of four aces), a saloon owner and town boss, with two bandit brothers, including Jose Torres as Pedro (scar over his left eye) and Angelo Susani as Paco (an earring from his right ear that dangles). Also look for Mario Brega as one of Walcott’s henchmen, an actor continuing his trend of dying horrifically in spaghetti westerns, and Bruno Corazzari as another hapless henchmen. Don’t forget about him in the finale. Where is he hiding?

All the touches of a successful spaghetti western are here from the anti-heroes and the despicable villains to the dusty border towns and extreme close-ups. For a movie that’s 114 minutes though, it is not action-packed. The story builds up the tension as Bill and Ryan hunt down their revenge, but it’s rarely dull. Just don’t think you’re seeing two hours of shootouts and gunfights. The ending though is one of the more memorable finales of the genre; Bill and Ryan in an isolated Mexican mountain village shooting it out with Walcott’s men. A wind storm whips across the mountains, enveloping the town as sand, dirt and wind swirl around. If you were looking for action, this is the best place to find. Also worth mentioning, a twist that probably shouldn’t come as a surprise, but it works nonetheless in terms of the two characters involved. Great finale, great ending.

Now in a spaghetti western, you’d be safe guessing that composer Ennio Morricone did the musical score, and here, you would be 100% correct. It never ceases to amaze me this man’s talents. Some scores had touches of familiarity, but his ‘Death’ score is unlike any other he did and in general, one of his most underrated scores from a long and distinguished career. Listen to the main theme HERE for an idea. Another sample comes late in the movie — dubbed Mystic and Severe — which you can listen to HERE and watch in context HERE. Quentin Tarantino is a huge fan of the score, using both those music cues in his movies Kill Bill Vol. 1 and Inglourious Basterds. A great score though to keep things moving in a great spaghetti western. Van Cleef was rarely better in bad-ass mode, and you’ll be hard-pressed to come up with too many that are better than this movie. You can watch the entire movie HERE at Youtube, but the quality isn’t great.

Death Rides a Horse  (1967): *** 1/2 /****

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The Savage Guns (1962)

tierrabrutal22If westerns are my favorite genre (they are), then spaghetti westerns would have to be my favorite sub-genre. Director Sergio Leone often gets credit for starting the spaghetti western craze, and he did…but his movies weren’t the first movies in the genre. Leone just put them on a worldwide level. The first spaghetti western (of sorts)? That’d be 1962’s The Savage Guns.

It’s 1870 in Sonora, Mexico along the U.S./Mexico border. A land baron, Ortega (Jose Nieto), is terrorizing the area and all its smaller ranchers, including an American, Mike Summers (Don Taylor). Ortega sends his right-hand man, Danny (Alex Nicol), and his gang to systematically rob the ranchers of all their money – calling it protection money – and then shooting them if they don’t comply. There seems to be no solution, until an infamous gunslinger, Steve Fallon (Richard Basehart), drifts into town. Will Fallon stand with the smaller ranchers or will he move along to the next town?

Well, a little mix-up here. The recent airing on Turner Classic Movies listed this western from 1973, not 1962. Whoops! ‘Savage’ was backed by British and Spanish producers, directed by Michael Carreras, and was the first western to be shot on-location in Almeria, Spain, specifically the same spot as the Caulder ranch in 1971’s Hannie Caulder. All the familiar touches that would become synonymous with the spaghetti western genre are there, from the locations to the big, booming musical — listen here —–> — score (composer Anton Garcia Abril) to the cynicism and violence evident throughout the story. It’s rough at times, a little disjointed and slightly odd, but its influence on countless westerns to come over the next 10-plus years is evident with each passing scene.

One of the biggest influences the spaghetti western had was reviving the careers of American actors who had lost their star power, or catapulting young actors into stardom and the spotlight. ‘Savage’ leans more toward the reviving department. Never a huge star but a reliable character actor, Basehart is a little miscast as Fallon, the deadly gunfighter with quite a reputation. He looks to be having some fun but doesn’t bring a ton of energy to the part. In his last starring role before turning to the director’s chair, Taylor is solid as Summers, an ex-Confederate officer who has vowed to never use a gun again. Nicols does what he does best, hamming it up as the sneering Danny Pose (quite an intimidating name, huh?).

Here’s the weird thing I’m trying to wrap my head around. This isn’t an especially good movie. In some parts, it’s downright dumb, even bad, but I was entertained. Partially, it’s the casting. No big names, just recognizable faces. It’s hard to describe though. ‘Savage’ plays out like a blueprint, a rough draft for what’s to come, especially its depiction of on-screen violence, and one particularly brutal wound for a main character. The spaghetti westerns especially took that to heart, wounding, crippling, maiming and torturing countless anti-heroes to come!

While American stars often filled out the lead roles, Spanish, Italian and actors from all over Europe played the supporting parts. Nieto is the villain, Ortega, who’s generally pretty weak and isn’t given much background. Paquita Rico plays Franchea, Sommers’ wife (not given much to do other than look worried). The lovely Maria Granada (listed incorrectly as Manolita Barroso on IMDB) plays Juana, the love interest for Fallon. The age difference between Barroso and Basehart sure makes those love scenes look…odd? Uncomfortable? Forced? Yeah, all of that. Spaghetti regular Fernando Rey is Don Hernan, an exiled rancher of sorts. Some other familiar faces pop up in supporting parts as bandits, farmers and soldiers.

All my criticisms aside, I genuinely liked this first spaghetti western, in spite of its flaws. The silent anti-hero, the over-the-top villain, the beautiful locations, the whistle-worthy musical scores, the mustachioed bandits, the brutal violence, it’s all there. It’s fun, and sometimes that’s all you need. Western fans should definitely get a kick out of this one. Keep an eye out for a re-airing on TCM, the print was gorgeous even if the audio was sketchy at times.

The Savage Guns (1962): ** ½ /****

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

once_upon_a_time_in_the_westWith his Dollars trilogy — A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly — Italian director Sergio Leone cemented his status as one of the great western directors of all-time. He was far from done. His follow-up to the immensely popular spaghetti western trilogy was another western, but one I consider to be his best. A classic in every sense of the word, 1968’s Once Upon a Time in the West.

In the budding town of Flagstone, Arizona, a beautiful young woman named Jill (Claudia Cardinale) arrives via train expecting to meet her husband only to receive shocking news. Her husband and his children have been massacred by unknown gunmen. Getting far more than she bargained for, Jill finds herself at the center of a bloody battle for land rights that everyone wants, especially the railroad’s brutal hired gun, Frank (Henry Fonda). Jill finds helps in odd places, including a mysterious gunman named Harmonica (Charles Bronson), and an on the run bandit, Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Everything is up for grabs with so much on the line in a growing, changing wild west.

If there was ever a film that didn’t need a plot description, ‘OUATITW’ is it. With a running time of 165 minutes, Leone’s western revolves one of the western’s biggest archetypes, the railroad moving west and all those involved who get caught in the wake. It’s so much more though, using character archetypes that you’ve seen before but in ways you’ve never seen before. Leone flips his own personal style on its side, favoring a deliberate pace with long, quiet scenes that can best be described as slow burns. The patient viewer will most definitely be rewarded in the end. It isn’t just a great western, it is a great film, and one of the great movies of all-time.

Leone is clicking on all cylinders here from beginning to end. His story is perfectly straightforward, but it requires you to pay close attention. I’ve seen ‘West’ repeatedly, but I always pick up something new with each viewing. This is a story of the changing times and dying ways of the wild west. Civilization is arriving, chasing the cowboys and the gunmen out the door. What happens in the meantime though? Beautifully filmed in both Spain and Monument Valley, ‘West’ is beyond visually stunning. The variety of American and Spanish locations links the two disparate types of westerns in a simple, deftly handled way. Throw in a hauntingly beautiful score from composer Ennio Morricone (more on that later), and you have a leisurely-paced story that is nonetheless able to pull you in more with each passing scene. It’s almost 3 hours long and for lack of a better description — not a ton happens — but the running time flies by.

Cardinale. Fonda. Robards. Bronson. I’m hard-pressed to identify too many western casts better than this one. Working off a script from Leone and Sergio Donati, the quartet brings these familiar characters to life. Cardinale is an all-time beauty, and I don’t know if she ever looked more gorgeous than she did here. More than that though, her Jill is what so many westerns were lacking; a strong female character. She receives help at different points from Harmonica and Cheyenne, but she’s far from a damsel in distress. Her chameleon-like ability to survive and thrive makes her a more than worthy lead. No small task considering her co-stars.

Going against a career’s built-up reputation, Fonda plays the villainous Frank and steals his scenes. He’s terrifying, an intimidating presence who overpowers seemingly everyone around him. No spoilers, but his introduction early is one of the most truly shocking entrances ever. Bronson has never been better. His Harmonica is a steely-eyed gunman seeking revenge, not saying much, instead playing the harmonica he wears around his neck. The reasoning for his revenge is nicely handled, a slow-developing flashback sequence that works so eloquently because it’s so straightforward. Robards too is a gem as Cheyenne, the bandit with a horrific reputation who takes a protective liking to Jill, hanging around nearby like a guardian angel.

Gabrielle Ferzetti so often gets overlooked in the cast, but his railroad baron, Morton, is maybe the most tragic character in the movie. Dying of tuberculosis, Morton desperately wants to see the Pacific Ocean before he dies. To do so, he’s entered a deal with the power-hungry Frank to clear any obstacles they may meet. Also look for Paolo Stoppa, Keenan Wynn, Lionel Stander, Frank Wolff, and a long list of familiar faces rounding out both Frank and Cheyenne’s gangs, notably Aldo Sambrell and Benito Stefanelli.

Oh, one more important member of the cast…well, sort of. Morricone’s score is worthy of being considered an essential addition to the cast. His GBU score is phenomenal, but this is phenomenal plus-one. In a career of amazing scores, this is his strongest, most beautiful, most haunting and most memorable. Give it an extended listen HERE. Each main character gets their own individual theme — Jill, Frank, Cheyenne and Harmonica — that often plays over their key scenes. Ferzetti’s Morton earns the most beautiful theme in one of the movie’s most truly haunting scenes. A good score can bring a movie up a notch or two. A great score can catapult the finished product into one perfect mix, the on-screen action blending seamlessly with the score. Morricone, the master at work.

No spoilers given away — go in with as little background/story knowledge as possible — but ‘West’ impressed me more than ever on my last viewing. Each scene is almost a stand-alone set piece, one memorable scene after another. The entire story takes place over 3 days (I think, maybe 2ish) but never feels rushed. The opening sequence is profoundly classic, a dialogue-free 10-minute intro as 3 gunfighters (Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Al Mulock) waiting for a train. Who are they waiting for? Bronson’s Harmonica of course, the scene fleshed out with natural noises and soundtrack until a blast from the train’s whistle breaks the silence. It’s the perfect way to kick things off.

It’s just the start. I’m rambling here, but it is the first of a long list of scenes that leave a lasting impression. A massacre at an isolated ranch, the ever-developing flashback we see in quick, foggy scenes, Jill’s entrance at the train station, Morton’s scenes imagining getting to the Pacific, and then there’s the last hour. It’s perfection, all leading up to a perfect ending. The scene between Frank and Harmonica before their showdown contains some of the best dialogue ever-written in a western. The showdown and the ultimate reveal of the flashback is just the capper, done in perfect Leone fashion, very theatrical with aggressive but patient camera work.

So, yeah, if you couldn’t tell, I love this movie. That said, it isn’t necessarily an easy movie to digest. Not everyone is going to like it. If you stick with it, know the payoff and the overall experience is one of the best the movie experience can provide. A classic and one of the best movies ever made.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968): ****/****

The Hills Run Red (1966)

the_hills_run_red_iWhen you think of spaghetti westerns, you think of a lot of names of American actors who traveled to Europe for a chance at stardom (or at least bigger stardom), names like Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. There were plenty of lesser-known stars though, like Thomas Hunter in 1966’s The Hills Run Red.

 It’s late in the Civil War and two Confederate soldiers, Jerry Brewster (Hunter) and Ken Seagull (Nando Gazzolo), have robbed a Union payroll and are on the run. About to be captured, they split a deck of cards to see who will stay behind and buy time, Jerry losing out. He begs Ken to take care of his family until he can get back to them. Captured by Union cavalry, Jerry spends 5 years in jail serving a brutal sentence. Upon his parole, he finds out that his wife is dead and his son is missing. What about Ken’s promise? His former friends has used the money they stole to start up a huge ranch, changing his name in the process. Jerry’s revenge starts NOW!

In the mid 1960s and into the late 1970s, over 600 spaghetti westerns were made (with some variations here and there). There are some classics, some good to really great entries, and some bad to downright awful ones at the bottom of the list. ‘Hills’ falls somewhere in between. It isn’t bad, it isn’t particularly good, but you know what? It’s entertaining in an oh so bad way. I don’t think it’s an insult to say a movie is fun, and that’s what you get here.

It’s hard to come down too harshly on this 1965 spaghetti from director Carlo Lizzani. The genre had started to take off with 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, but many entries still had that feel of an American western. ‘Hills’ is pretty cheap with a small cast and a small budget. The score from the master himself, Ennio Morricone, isn’t his best, but even just okay or pretty good Morricone is excellent. Give it an extended listen HERE. Not too many familiar locations to mention.

Not much in the way of star power here. In a short career, Hunter only did about 15 movies with some TV parts mixed in. I’d only seen him before in 1968’s Anzio in a supporting part. The verdict here? For one, his dubbing is really atrocious (not his fault). His lips are moving where the words aren’t! Also, his Jerry Brewster is a tortured anti-hero, a cowboy desperately seeking revenge. Hunter’s acting range is him literally SCREAMING his rage and disappointment. It’s actually laughable to watch. Interesting character with potential, but Hunter struggles in an over-the-top performance.

As for his villainous counter, Henry Silva also hams it up, chewing the scenery like his life depended on it as Mendez, Ken’s right-hand man and brutal enforcer. Decked out in all black, Silva rattles off Spanish in almost incomprehensible fashion, laughing maniacally basically every scene. The weird part? He’s the bad guy…but never does anything too bad, except for the maniacal laughing. Dan Duryea plays a mysterious supporting part that looks like he accidentally boarded a plane to Spain and walked on-set. Spaghetti western beauty Nicoletta Machiavelli is wasted as Mary Ann, Ken’s naïve sister. Playing the not so intimidating Ken Seagull (not Segal), Gazzollo leaves little impression, letting Silva do the heavy lifting.

 Fueled by revenge, but not much in the way of story, ‘Hills’ is an odd one. I’ve watched it 3 times I believe, and each time, I keep thinking ‘Meh, this isn’t very good.’ The shootout at the end is laughable, Hunter and Duryea running around an abandoned town dispatching bad guys like a Tom and Jerry episode. The twist in the final scene is unnecessary and comes out of left field. But then again, everything here feels a bit disjointed and kooky! Not good, not bad, just stupidly fun and entertaining.

 The Hills Run Red (1966): **/****

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972)

a-reason-to-live-a-reason-to-die-posterIf a formula ain’t broke…don’t fix it! Nowhere is that more applicable than with movies. If a movie succeeds, tweek it, twist it, spin it and do your thing. Released in 1967, The Dirty Dozen is a gem, an American army major tasked with leading 12 convicts sentenced to death or hard labor on a suicide mission. A classic! In its wake, countless war and western flicks followed the formula, like 1972’s A Reason to Live, a Recent to Die.

It’s early in the Civil War in the Southwest territory as Union and Confederate forces battle back and forth. A disgraced Union colonel, Pembroke (James Coburn), is seeking some revenge but his plan is suicidal (at best). The former commander of the impregnable Fort Holman, Pembroke surrendered the fort to the Rebs without a shot fired. Now, he’s approaching his former commanders with a way to take back the mountaintop fort. His men? Eight men rescued from the gallows at the last second, including an amiable drifter, Eli (Bud Spencer). All the while, Fort Holman and its psychotic commander, Major Ward (Telly Savalas), awaits. Pembroke can’t wait to exact his revenge, if he can keep his death squad in check.

As is so often the case with spaghetti westerns, it can be difficult to track down the full versions of so many of these movies. The genre itself was hugely popular in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, especially in Europe and plenty of third-world countries around the world. The versions that made it to America at times? Heavily cut, heavily edited, and often times a shell of what the original, intended version really was. The version I’ve seen is the heavily-edited 92-minute version. The full version — about 111 minutes — is available at Amazon for $90 if anyone wants to split it with me and just share the DVD…

What remains is a fun, entertaining but somewhat disjointed western from director Tonino Valerii (also directed My Name is Nobody, Day of Anger, and The Price of Power). An introduction to Coburn and Spencer was cut entirely, now we actually are spoiled by the ending in the opening minutes unfortunately. Then, it’s a quick flashback to where the mission all started (sorta). What follows a little barebones. Little time for exposition, quick, aggressive cuts that leave scenes jumping from one to another without much in the way of a transition. It’s all built around getting the story to the attack on the fort with no interest in characters, story or background. So if you’re patient for some action…

All that said, it’s hard not to be excited for a western starring Coburn, Spencer and Savalas, right? The backstory — however rushed — between Coburn and Savalas does provide a good twist in the film’s last half, explaining why Pembroke surrendered the fort without a shot. Coburn is the leader tasked with an impossible mission, leading his death squad without the squad actually killing him! His manipulation continually holds his men at bay. Spencer gives the movie a lighter touch as Eli, a drifter who sides with Pembroke during the mission. Savalas’ part amounts to an extended cameo, a script that doesn’t give him much to do, especially considering his backstory and how crazy we’re told he is. Eh, story is overrated!

The star power is in our lead trio. As for Pembroke’s death squad, spaghetti western fans will enjoy seeing some familiar faces, but it’s not big stars by any means. The wild west convict commandos include Sgt. Brent (Reinhard Kolldehoff), the questioning NCO — who potentially killed Pembroke’s wife? I don’t know…cut scene! –, MacIvers (Guy Mairesse), the murdering deserter, Wendel (Ugo Fangareggi), the horse thief, Pickett (Benito Stefanelli), a murderer and rapist, Fernandez (Adolfo Lastretti), a black market seller who’s latest deal killed 30 Union troops and Turam Quibo as a half-breed Apache. Quibo is also in Adios, Sabata and miscredited here in the ‘Reason’ casting listing. Not a likable group by any means, but an interesting mix for sure.

If you’ve made it this far, it must be because of the action. Using the same awesome filming set as 1970’s El Condor, the Fort Holman location is awesome, providing an incredible backdrop for an impressive attack that runs about 25 minutes. Explosions, dynamite, Gatling guns, twists and turns, a crazy body count, and who can make it out from our death squad? A whole lotta fun in a beautifully choreographed final action sequence.

Flawed though it is, ‘Reason’ is pretty fun, and I’ve watched it 3 different times over the last 6 or 7 years. Familiar locations from El Condor, Once Upon a Time in the West, The Deserter and plenty others, and a cool — if somewhat out of place — score (listen HERE) helps make for a fun if flawed final product. In the vein of ‘Deserter’ and Kill Them All and Come Back Alone. A mess but an entertaining mess!

A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die (1972): ** 1/2 /****

Sabata (1968)

sabata_dvd_coverIt’s beyond easy to point to Clint Eastwood as the actor most profoundly impacted by the popularity of the spaghetti western genre. His Dollars trilogy with Sergio Leone put him on the map on a worldwide basis. Who’s the second guy on that list? There are a handful of names that come to mind, but it’s not really close. It’s gotta be Lee Van Cleef, who co-starred with Eastwood in two Leone westerns. Van Cleef immediately shot to stardom, including an iconic character in one of the best spaghetti westerns in the entire genre, 1968’s Sabata.

 

In the Texas border town of Daugherty City, a gang of bandits rob a heavily-guarded bank and escape into the desert, heading for Mexico with the haul. That’s the plan at least. A mysterious gunfighter clad in all black, Sabata (Van Cleef), stops them in the desert, killing them all. He returns the money to the town and receives a sizable reward from the Army. That’s not all though. Three prominent businessmen in town were behind the robbery, looking to use the stolen cash to purchase more land, land the railroad is going to buy soon. Sabata quickly finds out their plan and blackmails the trio for increasing amounts of money. The only solution for the trio? Kill Sabata, but any would-be killers will have their hands full with this seemingly unstoppable gunfighter.

 

By 1968, the craze of spaghetti westerns were in full swing. ‘Sabata’ marks an interesting turn for the genre with director Gianfranco Parolini at the helm. The crazy villains, sweaty/sandy landscapes, the overdone violence, all three are on display. But Parolini’s western has a much lighter tone. There is genuine comedy, featuring some great one-liners and memorable sight gags. Acrobats fly through the air, including one of Sabata’s partners (but more on that later). Everything is exaggerated and overdone…but it works. It’s criminal how well it works.

 

It starts at the top with Lee Van Cleef as Sabata. It’s hard not to compare the character with Col. Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More (probably Van Cleef’s most memorable, iconic role), from the black suit and black hat to the expansive weapons arsenal. What’s added here is the more humorous tone. His one-liners are great, and his use of his guns ends up being some punch lines too. He seemingly can’t miss! Most importantly, Van Cleef seems to be having a ball. His evil smile is always on display, and you always get the sense he knows more than everyone else. As for his mysterious backstory, that definitely adds a layer to the story. His most memorable part? No, probably not, but it’s so much fun.

 

The general odd qualities to characters of the genre is a big positive here too. William Berger plays Banjo, a similarly mysterious gunfighter who’s always carrying…a banjo (with a surprise). He works for whoever will pay him, so one scene that’s Sabata and the next the bad guys. He wears bells on his pants and his coat and has some effeminate touches, but it’s a scream. The dialogue between Van Cleef and Berger provide repeated gems. Ignazio Spalla has a ball as Carrincha, Sabata’s right-hand man, a drunken Civil War vet who’s an expert knife thrower. His maniacal laugh is awesome. Aldo Canti plays Alley Cat (Indio in certain cast listings), a mute Indian who bounces around town like an acrobat with some nicely hidden trampolines. Definite oddballs but fun throughout.

 

Franco Ressel plays Stengel, the powerful rancher pulling all the strings. With an epic combover, heavy eyeliner and almost alien eyes, Ressel isn’t the most imposing villain…but definitely one of the more eccentric. Antonio Gradoli and Gianni Rizzo play his partners in crime, ever worried Sabata will ruin their plan. Also look for the beautiful Linda Veras as Jane, a saloon girl who loves Banjo, an eye candy part if there ever was. Also keep an eye out for plenty of familiar faces if you’re a spaghetti western fan.

 

What caught my attention on this latest watch was that really, there’s not much in the way of a story. Sabata blackmails the baddies, the baddies try and kill Sabata with epic failures….and then there’s a lot of shooting. You don’t notice though. It never slows down — at 102 minutes — enough for you to not enjoy the ride. Lots of action throughout, highlighted by Sabata, Carrincha and Alley Cat attaching Stengel’s fortified ranch. As well, the finale has a good twist and one of the better final shots.

 

Last but not least, composer Marcelo Giombini turns in one of the great spaghetti western scores over. Big and loud, featuring some almost gothic orchestra uses, and a GREAT theme song, it’s so good. Listen to a sample of the soundtrack HERE and the main theme song HERE. Apologies in advance if they’re stuck in your head for a couple days. Not always mentioned as one of the best spaghetti westerns, but it’s a gem and one of my personal favorites. Also, check out two Sabata sequels, with Yul Brynner taking over the part in Adios, Sabata and Van Cleef returning in ‘Return of Sabata.’ Neither are as good — Adios is better — but still worth a watch.

 

Sabata (1968): *** 1/2 /****

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968)

go_kill_everybody_and_come_back_aloneThough he starred in over 50 films, headlined a couple lesser-known TV series and was even a pro baseball player, Chuck Connors will always be remembered as TV’s The Rifleman, an iconic role and one of the great TV western heroes. By the late 1960’s though, Connors went the route that many American stars did and headed to Europe for the spaghetti western craze. He starred in an entertaining Dirty Dozen-esque knockoff with one of the coolest movie titles ever, 1968’s Kill Them All and Come Back Alone.

During the Civil War as fighting rages in Texas, a gunfighter/outlaw, Clyde McKay (Connors), is enlisted by Confederate forces for a dangerous mission. The Union army is sitting on a huge gold shipment at a well-guarded outpost in the mountains. The gold is actually hidden among bundles of dynamite, making a potential robbery even more dangerous. McKay recruits five other men — killers, cutthroats and thieves — to aid in the mission…destroy the gold at all costs. With a Confederate intelligence officer (Frank Wolf) along for the ride, McKay and his crew ride out into the desert. The thought persists though…why destroy the gold when you could just as easily steal it?

The name Enzo G. Castellari might not be synonymous with other great spaghetti western directors, notably the two Sergios, Leone and Corbucci. Castellari was still a young director in 1968 when he helmed this action-heavy western. Over the next 10-plus years, he would direct some high quality action flicks that were almost always crowd pleasers. There’s nothing much to this 1968 effort, just 96 minutes of crazy action, fun/cool characters and some twists, turns and betrayals along the way. Nothing classic but highly enjoyable and definitely a fun watch.

The formula here is a familiar one. Just a year earlier, The Dirty Dozen was released, the story of 12 convict commandos working together on a suicide mission. Countless knock-offs and reboots followed, both war movies and in westerns. The spaghetti western genre alone went back to the well several times, including A Reason to Live, a Reason to Die and The Five Man Army. There isn’t much in the way of star power here or even much character exposition (as in any), and no time wasted with anything but the streamlined action-heavy theatrics. Introduce the team, introduce the mission, let the fireworks begin. Easy-peasy, right?!?

Starring in his first spaghetti western, a very thin, vvvvery tan Chuck Connors is McKay, the intrepid leader of our suicide squad. Backstory? Nah! Connors is cool and looks to be having a ball. It is cool seeing him playing a pretty nasty character, especially relative to squeaky-clean Lucas McCain. Now we need some specialists to help! There’s Wolf as the suspicious Captain Lynch, then Hoagy (Franco Citti), a quick-handed killer with pistol or a unique rope garrote, Deker (Leo Anchoriz), a specialist with dynamite and an 1860’s dynamite launcher, Blade (Giovanni Cianfriglia), a half-Indian, half-Mexican knife expert, the Kid (Alberto Dell’Acqua), a steely-eyed killer, and Bogard (Hercules Cortes), the brutish strongman. A good team, star power be damned.

I was surprised when the main heist takes place just 45 minutes into the story. The attack on the mountain fortress is a doozy of gunfire, explosions and acrobatic death stunts. Our squad hits everything while an entire garrison of Union soldiers can’t even nick them. They also literally drop their weapons and charge at them for a good, old-fashioned fistfight instead. Noble, right? It’s big, overdone and dumb fun though. The last 45 minutes revolve more around some twists and betrayals that do slow the story down a touch. Castellari knows how to string together some action though. Criticize any number of things here, but the action is fun from beginning to end.

Turn your brain off and enjoy this one. Some great looking locations in Spain, a fun musical score, and action popping at the seams throughout. I watched it on Youtube HERE if you’re interested. Definitely worth a watch, especially for spaghetti western fans.

Kill Them All and Come Back Alone (1968): ** 1/2 /****